COOL IMAGES: Breaking Plates

Science  18 Jun 1999:
Vol. 284, Issue 5422, pp. 1887d
DOI: 10.1126/science.284.5422.1887d

The continents are something like leaves floating in a superslow-motion Jacuzzi. Every few hundred million years, the land masses clump together; then pressures build, and they break up and spread out across the globe. Experts have built up this scenario over decades of excruciatingly precise measurements of magnetic patterns in the sea floor that trace the lumbering movements of continents, as well as from other geologic clues.

As an undergraduate in the 1970s, University of Texas, Arlington, paleogeographer Chris Scotese contrived a neat way to illustrate plate tectonics: He made flip books. Bend the book and riffle through the pages quickly, and you'd see a crude animation of, say, the ancient supercontinent Pangea breaking up. Now Scotese has brought his flip books into cyberspace at his Paleomap Project site ( Click on an animation of the world, and you can zip back and forth in time between Pangea 200 million years ago (Mya), the Cretaceous 70 Mya, and today; or time travel to the next continental convocation. You can also zoom in for close-ups, such as India peeling off from Madagascar and making a beeline for Asia. The site (which sells CDs and maps) also offers detailed maps that show ancient mountain ranges and climates.

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